The Richard Allen homes, in the Poplar section of North Philly.
Evan M. Lopez
Five years after the country’s worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, the dream of a decent home has become more elusive than ever for the city’s poor.
Grim numbers tell the story: 28,076 low-income people are waiting in line for a Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) unit; 54,368 want Section 8 vouchers, which subsidize rent in the private market; and 26,382 wait on a third list, for tax-credit subsidized housing. An untold number who need affordable housing, however, cannot even apply. The first two waiting lists are closed.
“I’ve been trying to get on it for years,” Farrah Wynn, 32, says of the Section 8 list. “But it’s never available.”
It was hard enough for Wynn to afford $800 in monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Mantua when she worked for a cosmetics company. Now, pregnant and temporarily out of work, she finds it is nearly impossible.
“Juggling a job and child care and rent is a lot for one person,” says Wynn. “It’s a lot for two people as well.”
The economic crisis and flood of home foreclosures pushed millions of Americans out of their homes, and many landed in a crowded rental market. That increased demand for a limited number of units — all at a time when unemployment skyrocketed.
“The need for affordable housing in Philadelphia is frankly incredible, and PHA does not have the necessary resources to meet that need by itself,” says Kelvin Jeremiah, who was formally named CEO of the scandal-plagued agency in March.
The rising cost of rent in Pennsylvania began to outpace household income gains in 2008, according to a December 2012 Philadelphia Federal Reserve study. By 2010, Philadelphia lacked an estimated 68,647 rental units that were “affordable and available” to the poorest households.
PHA controls just 14,118 units and 16,631 Section 8 vouchers. The length of waiting lists over time does not reflect actual demand since the lists are closed. But things have certainly gotten worse.
Only about 480 PHA units turn over each year, and the agency has fallen far behind on a 2008 pledge to annually house 300 homeless families in units and 200 individuals with vouchers.
“We will never be able to address that demand with only 480 units coming available,” says Jeremiah, who has increased by 50 the share of 500 units dedicated to vouchers. He says that 70 percent of new PHA units are now dedicated to the homeless.
According to 2012 Census data, nearly 50 percent of Philadelphia households earn less than $35,000.
And even if the lists were open, some poor Philadelphians would be unable to apply: A criminal conviction often bars applicants from public housing for years.
Jacquiline, a 27-year-old mother of two, spent nine months locked up after she was caught with 11 grams of marijuana in a prison parking lot. She lost an $8-an-hour job at Northeast Building Products and now receives cash support from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). She styles hair on the side, barely piecing enough together to make her $625 rent.
“I’m suffering for it to this day,” says Jacquiline, who receives no child support from an absent father.
Recent cuts to housing and income support have squeezed the poor from two sides. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett eliminated General Assistance, the $205 monthly payment to recovering addicts, people with disabilities and survivors of domestic violence. In Washington, Republicans have championed the sequester, a deep, across-the-board cut in public spending implemented in March. PHA, which, like other public housing authorities receives most funding from the federal government, lost $42 million.
“My opinion is that there is a disinvestment in public housing, and that public housing has been un-der attack,” says Jeremiah, adding that persistent mis-management — most dramatically under former PHA CEO Carl Greene — has encouraged opponents.
Public housing in Philadelphia was first constructed during 1930s and ’40s to house residents of dilapidated slums and tenements, as well as to shelter wartime industrial workers. By the late 1980s, there was a consensus view that high-rise public housing, often populated by African-Americans, was a disaster: vertically concentrated poverty, with crumbling infrastructure and flourishing crime. Insufficient funding, especially for maintenance, made failure a certainty. Tenants, and residents of surrounding neighborhoods, demanded a change, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Hope VI program has over the past two dec-ades funded the demolition of high-rises and the construction of low-rises and mixed-income developments.
Nationwide, 260,000 public-housing units have been demolished or eliminated since the mid-1990s, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and only about one-sixth of those units have been replaced.
Jeremiah says that while the Hope VI program and Greene did a tremendous job of “revitalizing neighborhoods [and] reducing concentration of poverty,” they also “substantially decreased the number of available affordable public housing units” in Philadelphia by more than 6,000.
A new partnership among the city, HUD and developers — called “6 in 5” — aims to create or preserve 6,000 units of affordable housing in the city over five years. It will barely meet the demand — nor will it provide for PHA’s estimated $1 billion in needed capital spending. HUD provides just $49 million in funding to fix elevators, roofs, heaters and hot water.
Chendale, 19, the mother of a 1-year-old girl, has been on the PHA unit list for two years, and there’s no telling how long she will have to wait. She shares her childhood bedroom with her own child.
“I have a daughter, and I’m getting older. And I need space,” she says.
Chendale works as a home-health aide, but is awaiting a new assignment and is currently unemployed. She is applying for TANF — what’s left of welfare since President Clinton and congressional Republicans ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.
Tyisha, a 29-year-old mother of three who recently left a homeless shelter, now lives in transitional housing. She says that the Department of Human Services (DHS) took her son away because she does not have a stable place to live. Growing up in group homes and foster care, she is now raising her own children in painfully familiar chaos.
Having her own place to live would provide a needed anchor, and Tyisha is just the sort of person that PHA is supposed to be prioritizing.
“It would mean a lot to me,” she says. “It would bring me stability … and I could start pursuing my goals,” she says.
But without more assistance from the federal government, the cash-strapped agency cannot afford to help her.
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